Being angry or being sad aren’t particularly ideal dispositions for sound mental health, but which is worse when it comes to physical health? A new study finds that anger appears to be much more harmful, with the potential to increase one’s risk for ailments like heart disease, arthritis, and even cancer in old age.
Older adults may be more prone to feeling upset as their health worsens and day-to-day tasks grow more challenging. But for those who seem to become angry over the most trivial things, here’s more reason to show greater concern rather than shrug them off as simply becoming the grumpy old men or angry old ladies in our lives.
Researchers say that older adults who regularly show anger are more likely to have higher levels of inflammation, which can lead to numerous chronic illnesses. Inflammation occurs when the immune system attempts to protect the body and fight off bacterial infections and viruses after an injury or when battling an illness.
“As most people age, they simply cannot do the activities they once did, or they may experience the loss of a spouse or a decline in their physical mobility and they can become angry,” says lead author Meaghan A. Barlow, a researcher at Concordia University, in a release by the American Psychological Association. “Our study showed that anger can lead to the development of chronic illnesses, whereas sadness did not.”
For the study, Wrosch and her co-authors examined data from 226 adults in Montreal between ages 59 and 93. Participants completed daily surveys for a week to gauge their levels of anger and sadness, and they submitted blood samples to measure inflammation.
“We found that experiencing anger daily was related to higher levels of inflammation and chronic illness for people 80 years old and older, but not for younger seniors,” says co-author Carsten Wrosch. “Sadness, on the other hand, was not related to inflammation or chronic illness.”
It could be that sadness is more likely to help the elderly accept their physical limitations, as they see their condition as a reality that requires them to make necessary changes in their lives. But anger can also come with some benefits, too.
“Anger is an energizing emotion that can help motivate people to pursue life goals,” says Barlow. “Younger seniors may be able to use that anger as fuel to overcome life’s challenges and emerging age-related losses and that can keep them healthier. Anger becomes problematic for adults once they reach 80 years old, however, because that is when many experience irreversible losses and some of life’s pleasures fall out of reach.”
The authors say that anger can be tempered among the elderly through interventions such as therapy or by using coping strategies when they’re feeling upset. Barlow says educating individuals on the harm that anger can cause and showing them how to cope with loss or change can help them let go of those feelings.
The study is published in the journal Psychology and Aging.